Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Zion Ranch is not "Little House on the Prairie"

I just have to speak out this morning about a news article that appeared in the Houston Chronicle this morning, "Zion Ranch mothers question CPS raid." Terri Langford reports how "beautiful" the compound is. How there are oak trees everywhere. How groomed the road is that stretches between two metal gates. How everywhere there are signs of "devotion to industry" with new crops planted. How nicely squared boulders line the rock quarry. Theirs is a "quiet life" with lovely women in pioneer dresses "with puffed long sleeves." Oh how sweet the colors of the cloth, yellow, light blue, turquoise, and dark blue. How each has long hair put up in a "beautiful upsweep." For four blissful years they lived a quiet life until...the "state descended" on them.

The women were interviewed by the press. And what do they say? When questioned about the pregnancies of the thirteen and fourteen year old girls in the compound, one of the women said, "What does 'age' mean?" Another said, "It's a choice." Another, "Everybody in America has free agency."

What is going on here? When a man has sex with a thirteen year old girl she has no choice. The last time I knew it was a crime in the US called rape. And usually the police arrest him and he goes to court where it is decided what to do with him. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly Warren Jeffs isn't just a convicted criminal, he is convicted on two counts of being an accomplice to rape because he forced a 14 year old girl into a marriage with her first cousin! And if the mothers of these children think for an instant that their daughters have a choice in this situation, they had better think twice. What thirteen year old child is going to leave the compound on her own, especially when the message preached around her is to go forth and multiply!

We need to be very aware here that a religion, no matter what it is, does not have the right to overstep the law of the US. Members may choose to, but if the members of a religion break a law, then there are consequences. And the pregnancy of all these young girls is not only distressing to me, but is more than suggestive of a pattern of male criminal behavior. The Zion Ranch is not "Little House on the Prairie."


Bill Cork said...

"We need to be very aware here that a religion, no matter what it is, does not have the right to overstep the law of the US."

Do you want to modify that at all?

Martin Luther King preached that there were times when it was obligatory to "overstep the law of the US," because there was a "higher law." This is the basis of civil disobedience, and was expounded by Thoreau and by the abolitionists in the 19th century, as you know. Are you suggesting that the abolitionists and the civil rights activists should have preached obedience to all US laws, regardless of how unjust?

If not, where do you draw the line?

April DeConick said...


It is not a right to commit a crime. If you do so, there are consequences to pay. When people, whoever they are, religious or not, choose to overstep the law, there are consequences. That is why what you are talking about is called civil disobedience, and guess what, sometimes you get to go to jail. If a person wants to overstep the law, it is not a right to do so. It is a choice. In the case of Zion Ranch, we are not talking about civil disobedience. Statutory rape law is a law that protects our children.

Memra said...

Somehow, I don't think that a "higher law," especially a moral one, could embrace rape or child predation.

Even the civil rights workers and abolitionists were working to secure freedoms granted under the Constitution of the U.S., and to have those freedoms more fairly determined.

I don't see a comparison between these situations.

And, of course, the civil rights workers and the abolitionists were aware of the consequences of their deeds at those times, and were willing to bear them.

April DeConick said...



Bill Cork said...

I see the emotions are causing you both to give some rather knee-jerk reactions. Religious freedom is a right. Conscience is an obligation. Now, you have a situation here that would seem to be clear cut in the eyes of most--child abuse (at least that's the accusation, and we do have that little point about innocent until proven guilty). But is life always that clear cut? No. Does civil disobedience mean that there will be consequences? Of course. But it is obligatory, I think, for scholars to be able to explore, discuss, finesse, where the dividing line might be.

Rice has a center for religious tolerance (I'm on the advisory board); the Boniuk Center blog has said this is a clear case where tolerance can't apply. Fine. But where do we draw the line? What are the criteria? Do we just make US law the determining factor? I hope not, because it has too often been on the wrong side.

Richard said...

I'm sorry Bill Cork, but I think April's and Memra are giving anything but "emotional knee-jerk reactions". I, too, will stand up for religious tolerance. But a bunch of pediaphiles using religion to justify their actions is not someone I'm going to stand up for- I'm going to stand up to them. This isn't a college dorm bs session, this impacts the lives of children in a criminal way. I'm astonished at the defense of sexual predators in this country. It is a certain sign of our moral decay. Sorry for any misspelled words but I'm mad.

Mark D B said...

To see this issue for what it really is I think you must remove the context of religion entirely, and ask, what is happening?

The allegations are of child abuse and rape. There is no ambiguity that would allow such things to be compared to the civil rights movement, etc.

I think you must ask yourself whether the situation is ultimately harmful or beneficial to those involved. Is it ultimately liberating of the individual, or is the goal to subdue? In those (perhaps overly simplistic) terms I think the line is easily drawn.

Richard said...

These are allegations, not proven facts. The media has played this up to improve its ratings. Let's wait until these people have had their day in court.

It is interesting that the girl who supposedly made the call doesn't seem to exist. The abusive father is in another state. Perhaps there are other exagerations.

If child abuse is involved we will find out, but until then lets chill out a little.

I am a little disappointed that none of you are using your critical thinking skills here. Is this how you reason with your students?

David Creech said...

The actions of those on the ranch are certainly questionable and I for one would never endorse such behavior. But I do think that state intervention raises some important issues. For one, are the 400 kids removed from their families better off in foster care? What will it do to them psychologically to be forcibly removed from their homes and exposed to a world that is undoubtedly quite foreign to them? As to the issue of forced child marriages, the child part is certainly offensive, and polygyny perhaps reveals a certain amount of implicit sexism, but could we be guilty here of ethnocentrism? It may not be "Little House on the Prairie" but there may be some in the sect (even women) that are quite comfortable with that lifestyle. So in my mind, Bill's question is worth asking--what are the criteria when it comes to religious tolerance? Who makes the call on what is or is not tolerable? Personally, I find some religious expressions deplorable (like flying planes into buildings or human sacrifice) but others are thornier. I do not endorse the behavior of the sect but I also want to be careful that I maintain the same respect of other traditions that I hope they will offer me.

John Noyce said...

My only comment is that this Mormon offshoot has apparently been behaving in this way for nearly a century, and only now, in 2008, do the state authorities finally act. Better late than never.
And to the critics above (all men): too many thoughts guys, way too many.

David Creech said...

Playing the sexism card is not an argument. In any case, my initial, gut reaction to the sect is one of disgust. However, I find the whole debate much more complicated because I feel for the mothers and the children. I would be devastated to have the state take away my son, and I am sure that he would be quite distressed as well. The women and children from the sect have it even worse because they already are quite secluded from the broader American culture--foster care is like going to a foreign country--and they are already leery of the state (with good reason).

April DeConick said...

1. Religious freedom in the US means that we can believe anything we want. It does not mean that we can conduct ourselves in any way we want. If we, as religious believers, do something that breaks State or Federal laws, there will be consequences for that. Now we can try to take the government to court and make arguments that we should be allowed such and such freedom of conduct because it is our religion. But this has not yet happened in the case of statutory rape, and I seriously doubt that any such case, if it were brought, would ever be upheld by our courts.

2. CPS went into this Ranch now because of the emergency call by a young Zion teenager who claimed abuse. This teenager, to my knowledge, has not yet been located. But the Houston Chronicle reported today that several of the Zion children told the workers that they knew this girl and saw her in one of the gardens a few days ago. Now I don't know about the rest of you, but I am seriously worried about this girl. What has happened to her?

3. I was once a thirteen year old girl. And I am also a mother of a four-year old. And it is not an intellectual argument for me. If children are pregnant as thirteen and fourteen year olds, someone is getting them pregnant, and someone is allowing (even promoting) this behavior.

Richard said...

First, there are two "RichardS" blogging here. I suppose I should change mine to Richard B so people will know the difference.

Second, I understand the reluctance to trusting the government. But having actually worked for and with CPS in Texas I will testify here that they move way too slow. Trust me, the FLDS'ers have had plenty of chances to clean their act up and will be given way too many to the same.

Third, what happened to the critical thinking skills of the, it's true mostly men, readers who defend the "religious freedoms" of the FLDS'ers? April is correct, religious tolerence means we belief what we want, it is not a lisense to do what we want. Why is that so hard for some readers to understand?

David Creech said...

First, I want to be abundantly clear (I guess i have not been thus far) that I do not endorse the behavior of the FLDSers. Child marriage and polygyny are problematic to me.

That said, I think there are two issues at stake here.

The first is whether the state is making the situation better or worse in its intervention. Do we care at all about the 400 kids now forcibly removed from their parents, living in a foreign environment (and last I checked the US foster care system is in serious disrepair)? Violation of laws demands punishment, but who is bearing the brunt of that punishment in the state's response?

Second as to child marriage, Dr. DeConick, you may share the experience of being a 13 year old female, but you do not share the experience of being raised in a culture wherein child marriage is normal. I understand the horror of it, and, again, I do not endorse it in any way, but that is largely the product of my being raised in a culture wherein such practices are abhorrent. Historically, this practice is very common to human experience, and is still practiced in some non-Western societies. Who am I to say that my culture's values are better than those of another's? What clarity of mind do I have to decry the evils of another group's experience?

Finally, as to the distinction between belief and action, Richard B. may be correct--I am too dense to understand that the two are distinct. In my mind, belief is not disembodied. It leads to concrete actions.

José Solano said...

I have only a minute but should inform commentators that there are states in the US where a 14 year-old girl may marry with her parents consent and is believed capable of giving her own consent Her husband would not be seen as raping her.

More perhaps later.

Trou said...

"...the state is making the situation better or worse in its intervention. Do we care at all about the 400 kids now forcibly removed from their parents..."

In your attempt to be thoughtful you are revealing your priorities. You are saying that child rape is less problematic to you that a temporary stay in a safe, caring environment for a short time in order to be sure they are not being harmed or abused.

Wow. How can you even compare the two situations? Are you more concerned that a 50 year old man can't practice his religion of having sex with a 13 year old than you are about a young girl being traumatically raped then held hostage for her entire life?
Now how does that sound to you? To me it sounds as if you are too concerned about the wrong thing. I value what is real not what is imaginary. It's real that young girls are being abused (young boys are abandoned too for being competition for the old men who want to be Alpha males) and all because someone wants to believe in an imaginary afterlife on some distant planet.

They can believe in this afterlife if they choose, but to act on it by enslaving these women and using their offspring as a dating pool, then they need to be stopped.

There is a reason the compound had gates - to keep the women from getting away and to keep the young boys from getting back in to challenge the old blankety blanks.

José Solano said...

Another bit of information for people to digest is that numerous states, I'm told 26, allow first cousin marriages.

So, we find that in the US there is considerable variability in marriage laws and once you are married the “full faith and credit” clause of the Constitution kicks in and these marriages—14 year-old and first cousins—must be recognized throughout the nation. If I’m not mistaken there was even a state in which until very recently 13 year-old girls could marry. This happens through parental consent and/or sometimes through consent of the court.

So what is really unique in the US about the situation in San Angelo, Texas is that they are having polygamous marriages.

Of course they do seem to be breaking varied Texas laws and the judges and juries will need to be conscientious about what the appropriate penalties should be. If there are complaints about child abuse then these need to be investigated and perhaps children removed for their safety.

For now it appears that the law enforcers think that it is justified to swoop down on this community that has been known for a long time, break up all these relationships and pull 400+ kids from the only families they have ever known. It does seem to me like a sudden hatched solution to a problem that has been known for a long time. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the government’s solution to that other Texas community, the David Koresh sect, only this group is not resisting the authorities.

Oh, I should mention that I speak as a father of three daughters and I don’t approve of either the Waco or the San Angelo situation.

I think David Creech is making an honest attempt to be objective in this matter. But I do agree with what Dr. DeConick is addressing and that is that the state need not tolerate everything that might go under the name of “religious freedom.” I’m more concerned about how it goes about enforcing the law than questioning its right to do so.


David Creech said...

What I am saying is that the horror we feel (and I am uncomfortable with the religion as well) is from an outsiders perspective. Their way of life is foreign to me and I would never suggest that it is a better way to live. At the same time, however, I think that things may look differently from the inside. For us, a young girl marrying an older man looks like statutory rape. From the inside, however, might this seem normal? When we decry the evils of another culture of which we are not part there is always the danger of ethnocentrism and imperialism. I am only suggesting we carefully consider all persons involved from as many perspectives as possible before we dogpile on what, for us, is an easy target. That to me is key to religious and cultural tolerance.

As to the "temporary stay in a safe, caring environment," those are not the first adjectives that come to my mind when I think of the US system of foster care. Moreover, this overlooks the culture shock that these kids will experience, in addition to the pain of being away from their parents. This punishes the children for the sins of their fathers, and I'm not sure that's the best way to handle the situation.

I am trying to be both thoughtful and empathtic, and I recognize the pitfalls of my thinking on this issue. I do not think, however, that my concerns are not worth at least pondering. The situation down there is really unfortunate and messy. It presents, for me, a real ethical dilemma with no easy answers.

Richard said...

Allow me, Richard B, to comment again. I am a Christian who doesn't have a problem with the term "evolution". In fact, I believe that Jesus was all about evolution. It means that living things change and that we leave behind the old ways for the new. I hear that Bill Cork and David Creech are trying to be fair. Let me help you. Yes there are cultures where child marriage is allowed even in the USA. But there are cultures in the world that still practice slavery and witch burning. Are we right to judge them as wrong? Yes. Those practices belong to the past. We have evolved and it's time for humanity to move on. As for CPS I have my issues with them too. But this is the lesser of an evil thing, child abuse, and an area that is problematic. Yes, there are abusive foster care givers. But I know that most foster care givers are good decent people. Would you be as concerned about taking a child out of a prison camp where they will die with their family?

Trou said...

david creech,
Your comment has a certain post modernist feel to it and suggests to me that you might think that all culture is equal and who are we to value ours above another. That argument is flawed and the point is moot considering we have laws against this sort of thing in our country. The fact that some states allow 14 year olds to marry with parental consent also has no merit as an argument since the law forbids polygamy and thus the supposed marriage to a minor is simply sexual assault without the legitimacy of marriage.

I tried to shake you out of your thoughtful concern for cultural differences and freedom of religion tact by using emotionally charged words like rape and hostage but you didn’t seem to notice. Once again I am baffled as to why you value abstract concepts like freedom of religion and cultural differences which only mask what is really happening and that is the abuse of these children.

We know enough about psychology to understand the mentality of these young girls. They speak softly out of conditioning because the have learned to submit to male authority (I wonder at the severity of the lessons). They identify with the culture of the compound because that is all they have known. Even so we would expect an emotional adaptation similar to Stockholm Syndrome in which the powerless comes to identify with the one with the power. We would also expect that when taken from this situation the abused would protest as we see battered women do frequently when the police haul their abuser away.

Yet we still intervene to help the battered and the hostage and the abused. We understand that this short time of confusion and fear of change will pass and a clearer mind will appreciate being freed from abuse. As has been said many times here, there are laws against such behavior. We also have laws against female circumcision, stoning of children, slavery and many other things that other cultures do. We do not do these things and those who try to do them will be subject to our laws. I doubt that you would argue for the same concern for allowing these practices as you seem to be about removing children from their cultures to insure their safety, but I still wonder why you find child rape less offensive than limiting supposed religious practices.

Rebecca said...

In all of the news coverage of this sect, one thing I have not noticed is any discussion of how thoroughly patriarchal and male-supremacist it is. The focus has been only on questions of child-protection - but in fact the two things go together. The older privileged males of the sect marry and have sex with young girls - who have no choice of who to marry or whether to marry at all. A woman in one of these marriages has no choice about whether her husband marries another woman as well, and she can't prevent her own daughters from being married off. And then, there are all the teenage boys who are driven off in order to allow the older men to have many wives.

The FLDS is an American movement - I certainly have no problem, as an American, as judging this social system as oppressive to women and children. I only wish that it were possible to completely break up all of the FLDS communities and free the women and children from the oppression that they suffer their entire lives.

José Solano said...

Sounds that like Sephardi Jews they are trying too hard to follow Old Testament permissible lifestyles in a nation where such practices are forbidden. The big difference is that these Mormonesque groups make polygamy an ideal whereas in the Old Testament, among Sephardic and other Jews, as well as in the Islamic view, it is “merely” acceptable.

For a good review of the world situation with regard to polygamy see

Although we may not like polygamy and patriarchal practices it seems it may be gaining ground in Europe and in the US as marriage laws are being increasingly challenged.